|Issue No 93
|27 April 2001
In his address to the Australian Labour History Conference, the SMH's Brad Norington asks whether there is still time for history.
I'm reminded of my niece as I speak to you today. She is sitting for the HSC this year at a Sydney high school and informs me that my news stories for the Sydney Morning Herald keep bobbing up in one of her subjects. It's a case of studying what I write, as I write it.
Her teachers are providing to students copies of my articles for legitimate study of contemporary history and the basics of journalism - the "who-what-why-when" and don't forget "how" questions that must be answered if possible in any report that professes to be comprehensive in the modern media.
So I suppose it's gratifying to know that not all I write is ending up as fish and chip wrappings or pulp for cardboard boxes.
I also know, from the number of notices I receive through Australia's copyright agency, that quite a lot of what I write is used as either material on its own or source material for research works by students and others.
And I can tell you that from the sampling taken by the copyright agency that I have a lot of more my work reproduced that my wife, who writes about rare brain diseases. What do I deduce from this? Well, at least contemporary labour history rates more highly in the public mind than rare brain diseases - or at least it did until the mad cow epidemic began.
But seriously though, I speak to you today as someone with experience in writing for the daily print media and as an author.
I am in my 18th year as a journalist for the Sydney Morning Herald, and I have spent majority of those years in a writing capacity as the paper's industrial relations editor. I'm also author of two books, one a chronicle of the 1989 pilots' strike and another a biography of the former ACTU president Jennie George.
This experience, combined with an earlier period of my career spent as an academic at the University of NSW teaching Australian politics, makes me peculiarly well placed to speak to you about the role of the industrial relations journalist writing contemporary history.
Daily journalism is a very different discipline to writing books, yet I would not have one without the other, unless I had chosen to veer off and write fiction. When it comes to the daily media, frankly, the role of the industrial relations journalist in writing contemporary history is essentially no different to the role of any other journalist. It's what the forefathers of modern journalism, people like Daniel Dafoe or Samuel Pepys, did, as they reported on major events in the world around them and tried to make sense of their significance. Our understanding of the Great Fire of London is so much more enhanced thanks to Pepys's diaries, resplendent with detailed observations and wry comments about what life was like in those times.
In modern day terms, the role of the journalist is to deliver the news as it happens. As speed of technology and life in general increases, knowledge is more powerful than ever. We seem to have an unquenchable thirst for information and the immediacy of the media can be addictive.
It is tempting to think of the role of the media as merely that of a cipher, giving a transitory, unscientific, even scatty take on life that is relevant at the minute an event happens and little more.
Sometimes this is not an unfair analysis. The media has a habit of reporting an event, failing to give it a broader context because of time or space constraints, and then moving on to the next thing when is tired of the subject or a new subject fixes its concentration.
Newspapers used to be journals of record - that is much less common now. Showbiz rules and the quest for a bigger profit that drives media companies more than ever before means that a leading force behind what is published is what editors think will maximise sales, based on what the market is perceived to want. As a consequence, the duty to inform, per se, has been downgraded. Follow-up stories are rare. Worthy stories get left out or go missing.
But there is something different about the industrial relations journalist. He or she is the specialist of specialists, usually possessed of far more detailed information about issues than can be conveyed in the space available, but perhaps more conscious than most journalists of the need to cut through the mind-numbing jargon and the arcane, so that issues can be explained in straight language to the general population.
The area is a great training ground for many in the profession and while there aren't many who stick around, one thing that all journalists who spend some time hanging around trades hall for a while come to appreciate is that there is a rich history, and much of it is untapped.
I mentioned just a minute ago the showbiz aspect of journalism that seems to be taking over. But scratch a good industrial relations journalist, not unlike, I suppose, a committed political journalist, and you will find a scribe who wants to tell the stories behind the stories, and fights for them to be published.
I think it is also reasonable to say that, despite my earlier criticism of how the mass media operates these days, the standard of industrial relations journalism, like that of political reporting, is a vast improvement on the past.
A peruse through newspaper articles from the 1950s and 1960s will demonstrate that the main issues of the day were certainly covered. And now they would provide some useful source material for any labour historian, for example, who was trying to come to grips with the basic wage cases of the era, or Albert Monk's ACTU presidency, or Menzies' attempt to ban the Communist Party or Bob Hawke's rise to power.
But frankly the journalism of those times was, on the whole, superficial in nature: rudimentary, polite pieces of journalism that were reverential to the government of the day and failed to tell the real story, or go much beyond the political process that was being played out in front of the reporter's eyes.
From the consumer's point of view, one of the advantages of the saturation of electronic media coverage now - much of which remains rudimentary - is that it has forced the print media to offer more to its audience in order to compete. By that I mean that the strength of the quality press is its capacity to break news, to delve further into issues, to look behind the news and to capture the subtleties of what is really happening.
Industrial relations journalists are far more sophisticated than in the past. They have to be if they are to provide the level of reportage and analysis that is expected these days as a matter of course.
This sophistication is a reflection of the improved economic and political literacy of readers and the pressure to provide, as one of the advertising jingles says, everything you need to know.
There are obvious benefits in this change for the writing and understanding of labour history. Labour historians have better resource material, from the industrial relations media, from which they can draw facts, tease out themes, compose more accurate narratives and understand the motivations for human actions.
I ran into John Hartigan a few years ago when he was editor of Rupert Murdoch's Daily Telegraph in Sydney and he said "Brad, industrial relations is dead". If IR is dead, then what am I doing here? What are you doing here?
From Hartigan's perspective, what he meant was that his paper had taken an editorial decision that industrial relations was dead, partly motivated by its negative attitude towards what trade unions do, but also based on a judgment that the serious decline in memberships since the 1970s made unions irrelevant.
Hartigan is now the chief of Murdoch's News Limited organisation in Australia and his analysis may be a sound one for the Telegraph. The Telegraph knows its tabloid market and is very good at what it does.
Hartigan was in a jovial mood when he spoke to me but was telling me nonetheless that what I was doing at the Herald was irrelevant. I would disagree. While industrial relations journalism has changed, there are interesting stories to be told, whatever you call them, and there are more of them each day.
There are presently enormous changes going on in our workforce, from the increased participation of women, to a transformation of the nature of work as jobs shift from full-time to part-time, and old-style manufacturing gets replaced by the booming service and information technology industries.
For the past six years, there has been a change in political culture to observe as the Howard government has replaced Labor's order with its own. It has kicked along changes that were already underway in the industrial landscape by passing laws that seek to reduce union influence, to devolve the authority of the institutional model created by H.B. Higgins to the local level and to promote labour standards tailored to the circumstances of the individual workplace.
The power of trade unions has obviously diminished - but they remain strong and organised in traditional areas that still form a large part of the economy and almost as influential as a decade ago inside one of Australia's two major political parties, the Labor Party. Labor, inevitably, is going to be in government at some time or other - and as the Hawke and Keating governments have demonstrated, possibly for long periods of time. The connection of unions to the ALP alone makes unions an important part of the network of political influence and therefore worthy of close observation for the keen industrial relations journalist.
Without the industrial relations journalist, there is so much of contemporary history that would not be written down. For example, the detail and sheer complexity of major events over the past decade such as the pilots' strike and the waterfront dispute would have been lost if it were not for the journalists who tracked them from start to finish on a daily basis.
There have been a lot of labour histories written over the years. It astounds me that some that have crossed my desk, by academics, can pretend to relate and analyse an entire era of recent labour history and yet not draw upon a single article in the quality press as raw material for footnotes or references. Rather, some of these books have stuck to the traditionally accepted approach of citing other academic works and nothing else. One in particular that springs to mind purported to be a rendition of the Accord years during the Hawke government and yet I was staggered to find nowhere in the tome any mention of the highly influential ACTU figure for all of that time, Bill Kelty, without whom the history may have been very different.
Given Mr Kelty's reclusive ways and unwillingness to be subject to public scrutiny, it is a statement of the bleeding obvious that the only way a historian is going to get to the nub of what really happened then is to sift through media reports in the Financial Review or Herald or Age or Australian or Business Review Weekly that were written by specialist industrial relations journalists who were fortunate enough to have had access either to Mr Kelty or those who dealt with him regularly.
I might add that the relative ease with which print media coverage can be accessed on the web these days makes it patently silly if such a resource is not used by labour historians. I know personally that one academic and author, Professor Braham Dabscheck from the Industrial Relations Department at the University of NSW, religiously reads the Herald, AFR and Australian. He has made a point over many years of keeping clippings files of articles from major newspapers. He has boxes and boxes of them and they are an invaluable resource for him in his writing and teaching. Dabscheck's books such as The Struggle for Australian Industrial Relations contain voluminous bibliographies as properly researched academic works should. But there are also extensive chapter notes, many of which cite newspaper reports. And it makes sense. Where else, except newspapers, could Dabscheck have relied to retrieve details of the wage-tax deals of the early 1990s? Nowhere. The educative value of the media should not be under-estimated.
Dabscheck also makes a point of asking his students where they obtain their information. Sadly, he is frequently disappointed to hear the answer that his students don't read newspapers. One suspects that some academics don't read newspapers either.
The collected work of the industrial relations journalist can be an important contemporary history in itself for the interested reader who is following an issue closely in the media. It can also be an important source material for the author and academic, who, with the benefit of hindsight, may disagree with certain interpretations of the journalist writing in the past, or is able to correct the record of some misreported facts, but nonetheless has a rich resource from which to draw information and compare with other historical records that may be uncovered during research.
I now want to turn to the journalist as author. Journalists have a distinct advantage over other writers when it comes to the more arduous task of writing contemporary history in book form. For a start, journalists are taught to write clearly and to use an entertaining style. Writing a book is very different to daily deadlines but a book publisher has a better than even chance that a journalist will be capable of sticking to a schedule and turning in a completed work.
Quality of the product may be a different matter. But the main point to make is that journalists have such a wealth of material at their fingertips, much of which probably hasn't found its way into print because of space reasons but which has been accumulated during the course of daily work.
This information can form the bare bones of a narrative, whether it is for a biography or a dissertation on a major issue of public interest.
Sometimes it would be a waste of this information if a book were not written. I certainly felt this way when I wrote my first book, on the pilots' strike. Early in the dispute, which from its start to last gasp lasted about seven months, I realised that the dispute had the dimension for a book and I approached the ABC's publishing unit. Ten years later I still get queries about the book and its availability all the time. The book is available in libraries and the odd second hand bookstore but otherwise is out of print. It stands as the only book on the subject and, unless I revise it, I expect this to remain the case. There is nothing else, except for the odd radio or television documentary, which pulls those tumultuous events together. It was an important history to tell. What happened a decade ago had implications for industrial relations in the early 1990s. It occurred just ahead of airline deregulation and the move away from a centralised wage system. It was the direct spur for Labor legislation enshrining for the first time a legal right to strike. It was something of a trial run for what the Coalition wanted to do to unions in general and it horrified some that a Labor government could so blatantly ignore union principles in its treatment of the pilots, even if they were perceived to come from a silvertail union that was not part of the ACTU family.
For the pilots at the centre of that storm, the tale has not ended. There were family break-ups, financial collapses, suicides, pilots who returned to their jobs and are still vilified as "scabs", pilots who left Australia for good to fly for overseas airlines and pilots who never found work in aviation again and have never emotionally recovered from the stupidity of their union leadership that cost them their jobs.
The proliferation of books written by journalists these days surely demonstrates the keenness of publishers to tap into what journalists, as prospective authors, can offer them. Some of the products of these labours are good; others are not.
Paul Kelly has replaced Donald Horne as the king of authors when it comes to writing contemporary political and social history and who can deny their quality? Kelly is already probably on so many university reading lists that long ago he transcended the label of newspaperman. He is prolific, a historian of all media genres and a professor at large. Apart from his regular newspaper columns and string of authoritative books, I'm sure many of you caught the recent history series on the ABC timed to commemorate our centenary of federation.
There are roughly speaking two types of books when it comes to writing contemporary history - the quickie and the thoroughly researched tome. Most written by journalists fall somewhere between the two.
The quickie is the book that is written in haste, sometimes amazingly in a matter of a few weeks, in which the journalist, in a flurry, just collates all the material that was gathered during the course of his or her working time on a particular story and essentially vomits it onto the page with a guiding narrative but without any additional research. The final product looks, for all intensive purposes, like any other book - it has a structure of sorts and a good cover jacket presentation. The reason it is written in such haste is that the journalist or publisher wants to capitalise on the currency of a public issue or public identity in the spotlight.
The quickie is the first to hit the market and capture sales, before other, more reflective, more thoroughly researched works. There may also be a belief on the part of the publisher that the book in question has a limited shelf life because public interest in the subject will disappear altogether.
It is easy to criticise books written by journalists on the basis that they lack the research methods that academics are trained to use. But the main practical limitation of journalists writing contemporary labour history in book form is a variation of what they face every day, satisfying relentless demands for output as a working journalist in the popular media. That is, of course, the limitation imposed by time.
The books that I have written do not fall into the category of the quickie and yet the time factor was undoubtedly most important: the publishers who commissioned my works had in mind that they would indeed be "contemporary labour histories", published as close as possible to the actual events they describe.
That meant that while much research and many interviews were conducted in addition to the work performed while covering these events for my news organisation, there were time constraints imposed on the projects - a shutting-off point that was necessary if the books were ever to see the light of day.
For the publisher there was a financial reality at stake that the books had to be released before the events they described faded too much from public consciousness. If too much time elapsed, the subjects would not have rated sufficient interest to yield sales justifying the projects in the first place.
In the case of my book on the pilots' strike, I approached the ABC with the idea in October 1989, roughly two months after the dispute began. My publisher, Richard Smart at the ABC, was keen to have it released as soon as possible. I submitted the completed manuscript, except for its epilogue, in early August 1990. In a remarkable editing turnaround time in publishing terms, the book was printed with an almost up-to-the-minute epilogue by late October and released in November.
In the case of the George biography, my publisher, John Iremonger from Allen & Unwin, was most keen to have the book out while George was still in office as ACTU president. He first approached me in December 1996, in the wake of a Good Weekend magazine profile I wrote about George that persuaded him that her life had all the elements for a good biography. I submitted most of the manuscript, as agreed, in early April 1998. Because developments germane to the biography were still in train after that - notably the waterfront dispute and the federal election - it was important to make the book as current as possible. Like Blanche D'Alpuget and others before me, I added chapters and revisions right up until publication time in November that year.
Such limits of time mean that the contemporary labour history can be as thorough as humanly possible but there must be missing pieces. Contemporary histories may benefit from currency, chief among them a living memory of the events described and access to interview subjects while they are still alive. But they may suffer by lacking the distance of 10 or 20 years, by which time passions have subsided, more historical documents may be available and a clearer analysis may be possible.
A manifest constraint of time, which worked against me, but in Jennie George's favour, was that for the first edition of her biography I was compelled to leave the issue of her Communist Party membership unresolved, even in the face of numerous accounts of witnesses who attested that George was a member along with them. The issue was left unresolved because George, and a loyal band of her friends, insisted most vehemently that she had never been a member.
What was I to do? The biography was unauthorised but Jennie George had agreed to cooperate with me and had given information freely in all other respects.
It had been made plain to me that the now defunct Communist Party, which has bequeathed its records under restricted access to Mitchell Library, would not allow me access to scan for George's membership. Given such insistent denials, the most I could reasonably conclude based on evidence prior to publication was that George was more than just a fellow traveller, that her party associations ran deep and that she claimed some distance from the CPA when it suited her.
After the biography's first edition publication in hardback in November 1998, Communist Party records that were not available previously came into my possession. These records, obtained for me from the Mitchell Library documents, confirmed beyond all doubt that George was no mere CPA foot soldier, but that as late as 1972 she was elected to the CPA's Sydney district committee with Jack Mundey, was elected to the national congress of the CPA and stood in elections for the party's central committee.
Now, by any historian's standards, the omission of George's CPA membership was a serious one from the first edition but I was fortunate enough to have a second edition in paperback in which I was able to correct the record. Even then, I had to make the changes quickly because of the printing deadline.
I think this anecdote provides a good example of the limitations confronting a contemporary labour historian who is trying to provide the most honest, accurate account possible.
It is going to be most interesting to see what Stuart Macintyre, the eminent Melbourne historian, makes of George's CPA membership in the second volume of his history of the Communist Party. As I understand it, Macintyre has been given full access to records held in the Mitchell Library. Surely he must devote attention to George's experience in the party and exactly how long her membership spanned. She rates, more than avowed CPA members John Halfpenny or Laurie Carmichael, as the most successful communist to have enjoyed a career in the mainstream of Australian public life. She reached the top of the union movement as the president of the ACTU. She was its public face. She may even make it to a Labor cabinet in a Beazley government.
George's coyness about CPA membership, while understandable in the context of the Cold War, was unwise in the sweep of history because when her name was already in the records of an organisation it was always going to prove impossible to conceal forever.
As George's biographer I'm disappointed because my account of her life is less for the omission. It would have made the book more interesting if I could have explained more clearly her political development and what life what like for her in the communist milieu. Such are the limitations of time and access. I look forward to Stuart MacIntyre's account of this important side of George's background and how he interprets it.
Today, my other book on the pilots' strike sits on the shelf, or at least those that are still in circulation do. Realistically, no commercial publisher in 2001 would take this project on board anew. The way modern publishing works, my book on the pilots was only a prospect as an independent mass-market proposition when it was fresh. The only way I can see that it will be revisited in written form is if an academic with a special interest writes a thesis on the subject or if the story is published as a subsidised institutional history.
I suspect the same is the case for my biography of Jennie George. Except for the broader interest of academic historians wanting to place her life in the context of the times, I believe my published account of her life will be the first and last.
I don't intend that comment to be rude towards George - maybe she will write her memoirs one day. It's just that unless she does the inconceivable and goes on to become Australia's first woman prime minister, she is, as she has admitted, past her peak. The public interest in George's life has waned and is certainly not sufficient to excite a publisher now, nor I believe in the future.
As it is, when Allen & Unwin first asked me to write the biography, George's profile was already on the slide. The influence of the ACTU had diminished significantly by the time she was handed the job in late 1995 and union memberships appeared to be in free fall, to the point where their relevance was being seriously questioned. There was nothing George could do to stop the union decline in the brief time she was at the ACTU. Her role stands as an important one symbolically, and she was a passionate advocate for her cause. I found her an interesting subject, but she was a figurehead and secondary to Kelty, who remained the organisation's pivotal figure until his retirement last year.
That leads me to another, final point about contemporary labour histories. Many readers like biographies because they provide an opportunity to explore the history of the period they relate. I think that this opportunity was a very valuable part of writing the George biography, perhaps the most valuable in the long run.
There is much background in my George biography. George herself lamented in her speech at the book's launch that "in some places I began to wonder whether the book was really about me or Bill [Kelty]". This is a valid question, as I acknowledged in an address to the Sydney Institute two years ago, and I was conscious of it at the time of writing.
When I told my publisher, early on, that I would probably have preferred to write a biography of Bill Kelty, he said he didn't think it would sell. But he acknowledged my point that Kelty was the more significant figure and crucial to George's promotion. As a compromise he suggested that the biography of George he wanted me to write could contain a mini-biography of Kelty as well, without losing track of the narrative. Who knows? The result may stand as the only mass-market biography of Kelty, let alone George.
This paper was presented at the Australian Labour History Conference, ANU, Thursday 19th April 2001
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